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April 21, 2020 Digital communications

Service design in a digital world

By Simone Slaviero

UX is a common practice across many digital projects, but what about service design? Are you already working with it? Thinking about doing so? Or are you simply wondering what the fuss is all about? If you’d like to know more about the differences between the two practices, then we're here to tell you all about it.

The concept of service design is almost 40 years old and yet we are only now really starting to see it come into its own. For quite some time, it had been solely focused on the review and improvement of services outside the digital world. In fact, it all initially began as a way to review and improve marketing processes, from both a customer and stakeholder perspective. Quite early on, the service blueprint was created to visualise experiences on the 'front stage' versus elements hiden from users - the 'back stage'. Along the way, service design has also evolved into a process that aims to capture service quality data in relation to user experiences.

Since service design is a human-centric discipline intended to understand a customer's journey, it is often confused with related disciplines with a similar focus, such as customer experience (CX), interaction experience (IX), and most frequently with user experience (UX). And yet, these disciplines exist and function fully unto themselves. UX in particular often leads the way when it comes to documenting and improving user experience. So, how is service design any different despite their surface similarities?

It's all about that zoom factor

While UX often zooms in on particular moments, service design seeks to initially understand and map out the bigger picture across every step of a customer journey. UX also zooms out when it needs to understand the wider context.

This is where the differences start to become clearer. Service design takes it ones step further by incorporating methods to drill down into specifics and understand the connections between all elements on both the front stage and the back stage. In particular, Service Design accounts for actions taken both in the digital space as well as the physical world, connecting the two to create a seamless experience.

In practice, how one applies UX or service design methods may differ based on the company size and organisational setup, individual expertise and preference, and project complexity. Quite often, service designers are also partly or fully involved in wireframing, as well as prototyping designs. It's no wonder then that the lines between UX and dervice design can be blurry, given that the fields and practitioners have quite the overlap.

At its core, service design encourages you to explore and weave a thread between users, technology, physical elements, organisations, and the environment, both on the front and back end, internally and externally, from start to finish, and top to bottom. It's for this reason that it's especially well placed to deal with complex projects that span different departments, as well as the physical and digital spheres.

Service blueprinting = next level journeys

A typical customer journey considers things like user actions, touchpoints, emotions, painpoints, and even possible solutions. The journey can also be broken down into high level stages. For example, when documenting a customer journey focused on conversion, the phases could be based on the AARRR pirate funnel.

In service design, we typically expand a regular customer journey by identifying extra things like:

  • The time taken for each step taken along the journey
  • Any physical touchpoints (as well as digital) that the user interacted with (e.g. a magazine or a credit card)
  • Which people, or ‘actors’, were involved along the way
  • All the actions taking place on the front stage, related to the customer's experience
  • All the actions taking place on the back stage, related to how others help shape and support the experience, as well as what these participants also experience themselves
  • Supporting processes, which are perhaps not linked directly to the customer but still support their experience in some way (likely connected to backstage actions)

We draw lines between all of these elements to show specific connections and sequences, as well as to separate between the interactive and visible parts of the experience. All of these items together, along with other details like metrics, policies, and anything else helpful to understand the journey, make up the service blueprint.

How did we even get here?

Naturally, you would need to begin with an initial data collection phase to help create the service blueprint. User research significantly contributes to this and allows us to verify any assumptions we might have. We can then determine which parts of a service are crucial to the customer experience.

It is also important to clarify and define your business goals, vision, strategy, and value proposition to help map the ideal future state blueprint alongside the customer experience.

What comes after the journey?

Like many other journeys we will take in our lifetime, there's always something that can be improved on. User sentiment and behaviour data, collected both qualitatively and quantitatively, can tell us whether or not an experience requires enhancement or adjustment of some kind. We can also use this information to track down redundancies and pathways that can be optimised.

It can be super useful to document and compare the current state of a journey with an ideal future state, aligning business goals alongside customer needs and expectations. Compared to the current state blueprint, the future state should be ever-evolving until the moment you are ready to record this as your 'new' current benchmark and re-start the review process from that point.

All of these details are plugged into a service blueprint, alongside all the other information we usually collect, to help teams determine which areas need to be prioritised for action. User stories can then help us break down the journey into bite size pieces for further analysis, design, and eventually development.

While service design has its origins in the physical 'service' space, the same methods can still be applied to produce better digital experiences for customers and stakeholders alike. Visualisation of the blueprint has become digitised via tools like Miro and Mural, though going analogue with regular post it notes on a large enough wall can also suffice and lends itself to inspiring - yet functional! - decoration. Better yet, if you would like to link to project tickets, you might opt to manage on a digital board like Trello or Jira.

Expect the service blueprint to continue to grow as more information is collected. It will serve as a source of truth that can help track all elements across the journey. And, most importantly, it will serve as a reminder to keep both customers and stakeholders at the heart of your decisions.

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